What Prose Writers Can Learn from Great Poetry

Guest post from Savannah Cordova.

There seems to be a quiet antagonism between poets and prose writers: the former feel snubbed by the wider reading public, the latter like they’re regarded as the commercial sell-out cousins of verse writers. But even beyond questions of how different writers feel they’re perceived, prose writers sometimes treat poetic writing as an entirely distinct skill from prose — approaching poetry with reverence, awe, confusion, or even fear.

Yet the fact of the matter is, good writing is good writing — and prose writers would be wise to take a few leaves out of poets’ books. To highlight how this can be done, here are four things that poets have a particular knack for, from which any writer could benefit… especially prose writers, who may find that their work isn’t so different from poetry after all.

1. Concision

By virtue of its (typical, but not obligatory) brevity, poetry as a form demands concision. At the extreme end of this practice, you’ll encounter haikus and poems like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”, pared down and distilled to the fewest words possible. While prose writers won’t be dealing with this kind of microeconomics unless they’re (literally) writing microfiction, there’s still a lot to learn from this process.

To arrive at this small number of words, a poet must be crystal-clear about what they wish to convey. It doesn’t matter whether clarity is achieved spontaneously or through several rounds of editing; the point is that once it’s there, the redundant words can be left on the cutting room floor. What’s left is condensed, controlled, and precise meaning — the kind that anyone writing short stories or even novellas should strive for.

2. Abstraction or impressionism

With all their concerns for plot, story structure, and style, prose writers can forget to pause and just meditate in abstract terms. Poets, on the other hand, take solace in the freedom provided by abstraction. Take Hart Crane’s The Bridge — to me personally, some of its lines are completely opaque, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the gathering, accelerating feeling the poem assumes, or its strange, arresting series of images.

I’m not saying plot and narrative progression don’t matter. On the contrary, abstract meditation and other impressionistic elements can actually strengthen the force of a narrative by making a character’s experience or point of view more immersive and engaging — so when it comes to narrative and poetic prose, don’t feel like you need to choose one over the other. (For more on how to strike this balance, check out Emma’s post on showing rather than telling!)

3. Capturing the moment

While we’re on the subject of meditation, something else that poetry does (and which is often neglected in longer prose works) is capture individual moments in a quiet, stunning way.

One such poem is Philip Larkin’s “Home is so Sad”: a short poem that encapsulates, in just a few lines, the haunting nature of isolation and loss. The same compact power can be felt in Seamus Heaney’s “When All the Others Were Away at Mass” — another poem that freezes time to memorialize a single, emotionally loaded moment.

Similar to incorporating abstraction or impressionism, pausing the demands of the narrative to build on the potential of a single, static scene is fantastic for your creative writing, and definitely something to practice if you’ve not tried it much before.

4. Incredible passion

Some poems are pure tour de force, ending on a note so passionate it feels like the poet just let their mic drop (without the somewhat obnoxious connotations of that gesture, perhaps). Great examples of this effect include Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice”, Langston Hughes’ “I, Too”, and Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”. Vitalized by their creators’ passion and energy, these poems sweep their readers along with their powerful verse.

Prose writers can learn a great deal from this force of emotion. While simmering tension is a great way to build suspense in longer works, moments of drama — however short and abrupt — will always raise the stakes in a story and communicate ideas more effectively. So draw from your heart, and write with passion (but as Emma says, do so with the humble awareness that you are not Wordsworth.)

I hope these lessons have been helpful to you, or at the very least raised some interesting thoughts about the different strengths of each literary form. Prose and poetry are not worlds apart, after all, and I believe that there’s plenty to be learned on both sides!


2 Responses to “What Prose Writers Can Learn from Great Poetry”

  1. Die Erste Eslarner Zeitung (@EslarnerZeitung) Says:

    Thank you for sharing this very useful information. Indeed very interesting. Have a nice week! xx Michael


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